Backtrolling for Steelhead

News & Tips: Backtrolling for Steelhead

I'll never forget my first experience with the unique sport of back trolling for steelhead. I was fishing with Les Wedge and Cliff Creech, fishery managers for New York State, on the Salmon River with guide Ken Budd in his West Coast-style drift boat.


Guide Dan Bryson with a steelhead from the Skagit Rive in Washington.

I had caught steelhead trolling in the Great Lakes, wade fishing with bait, fly fishing and casting lures in streams. But I had never back trolled in a river. At the first big dark pool we eased out our lines and Ken explained the technique. The lures were Luhr Jensen Hotshots, and Budd had us position them exactly 50 feet behind the boat, and then place them in holders.


There he could watch the tips of the 8 1/2 foot long graphite rods quiver as he rowed upstream to keep them wobbling seductively. But as he worked the oars, he also allowed the wobbling lures to inch downstream, slightly slower than the current. By watching the rod tips he knew exactly what speed to row.


Ken explained the technique. "With a fly or drifted egg, you're giving the fish something it likes. This method works on the opposite principle. The fish doesn't want to eat these plugs. It looks on them as intruders. When a steelhead swims up out of Lake Ontario or out of the ocean in the West, it is intent on establishing a spawning territory. Some upstart minnow wobbling and backing downstream toward the fish's turf angers it. The steelie may back away at first. But usually it lashes out and strikes to get rid of the invader."


Moments later we received a graphic illustration of those words. A center rod lurched downward in a sharp bend. Behind the boat a huge male steelhead thrashed on the surface, boiling the water to a froth.


I dove for the rod and reached it just as the big trout began a line-stripping run through the pool. It made two arching leaps, then bucked, shook and bull-dogged long and hard before I could subdue it and work the long, undulating form into Ken's outstretched net.


By day's end, when we pulled into the take-out point, we had landed 8 steelhead between 8 and 17 pounds. What an amazing introduction to a fishing technique! To say that I was sold on this tactic is an understatement.


A short while later I got a firsthand look at how effective this tactic is for West Coast steelheading, too. On that expedition I joined guide Dan Bryson on another back trolling trip for steelhead on the Skagit River in Washington, searching for steelhead running up this gorgeous river out of the Pacific Ocean. I'll describe that outing in more detail later. But first let's look in more depth at the details of how and where to use this dynamic steelheading method.


Why & How it Works

While it can be used on small and medium streams, the method is particularly suitable for big rivers. As Budd explained, back trolling exploits a steelhead's determination to keep intruders out of its holding territory and spawning turf. The classic form of this fishing method is done in a 14- to16-foot shallow draft dory with one person at the oars controlling the action and presentation of the lures, another one or two people in the middle of the boat handling the rods and battling fish when they strike. It's a team effort, and both the fish-fighter and boat rower deserve credit when a fish is landed.


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The author and guide Ken Budd (left) on the Salmon River in New York.

The oarsman maneuvers the boat down the river slightly slower than the current so that the plugs being "pulled" 50-75 feet downstream shimmy and dig enticingly, usually to a depth of 3-8 feet. This is a level where steelhead typically hold-close to the bottom where there's less current to fight, but a foot or two above it. By moving back and forth sideways across likely lies and backing gradually downstream, a good oarsman can cover every bit of promising water. If a steelhead is there and hasn't been pressured recently, a strike is imminent.


A modification of this plug-pulling method is sometimes employed on Midwest rivers. Called "drop-back" fishing, this technique calls for the boat to be anchored and then gradually working the lure back to the fish by releasing line, engaging the reel for a brief period, then releasing more line until the productive water has been covered.


This method can even be employed without a boat. On streams you can wade, simply position yourself on a riffle or bar above a pool or run and gradually work the lure down in the current. Lower the plug back a short ways, then hold it in position there for several minutes. Then release line and drop it back further, pressuring the steelhead in a suspected lie to nail the intruding lure.


On rivers too deep to wade, you can use a side-planer if you don't have a boat. This gadget allows the current to catch the fin of the planer and carry your lure sideways out into the current, with the lure running 15-30 feet behind the planer. When a fish strikes, the planer trips and slides down the line to your leader, where it exerts little friction during the fight.


Whether you're fishing from a boat with oars in the classic back trolling technique, using the drop-back technique or fishing without a boat, you need to focus on the prime spots steelhead hold in. Concentrate on known steelhead hideouts and holes, deep channels, runs and tail-outs. That way the lure spends almost all its time in productive water. Skip over shallow or slow current areas Look for stretches with a steady, but moderate flow-about the speed of a person walking-in both pools and runs.


Tackle & Lures

Rods should measure 7-9 feet with sensitive tips and heavy butt sections. Use baitcast reels with smooth drags spooled with 10-20 pound line. The lighter the line, the deeper the lure will dive. Add a swivel 36-48 inches up the line to reduce twist, increase lure action and catch debris that might otherwise snag on the plug.


BacktrollingForSteelhead STORMOrigHotNTot
Lures that wobble aggressively and run at prime steelhead depths of 3 to 10 feet are best.

Lures that wobble aggressively and run at prime steelhead depths of 3-10 feet are best. The most famous offering for this fishing is the Luhr Jensen Hot Shot. In fact, the tactic is sometimes simply called "Hot Shoting." The size 30 is the most popular model of this plug, but the smaller size 40 is effective in low water conditions or for skittish fish. The larger size 20 works well in stainy, high water. On big, deep rivers the deep-diving size 35 is a good choice.


Other lures that can produce for back trolling include the STORM Hot 'N Tot, Wiggle Wart, Hawg Boss Super Toad, Flatfish, Kwikfish and crayfish lures made by Rebel, Bass Pro and other companies.


Best colors include silver/blue, purple, silver/green, gold, silver with pink dots, fluorescent orange, metallic red and firetiger. In off-color water, the brighter red, gold and firetiger hues work best.



Some fishermen hold their rods while back trolling from a boat. It's certainly a thrill to feel the steelhead when it first nails your offering. But as a rule, you will probably draw more strikes with it left in the holder.


The key to scoring with this method is to move the boat downstream at just the right speed so the plug works with maximum action at just the right depth. To determine this proper pace, let out a small amount of line and watch the lures beside the boat. Find the upstream rowing speed that gives the plugs maximum action and then make a mental note of how the rod tip quivers and vibrates. When the lures are then placed out 50-75 feet behind the boat, you can tell by the action of the rod tip and how far it's bent whether they are working at the best speed.


East or West coasts, backtrolling is an exhilarating angling experience.

Count the revolutions of the reel spool as the lure goes back, because you want to know exactly what the proper distance back is and be able to set several lures out at the same distance. This presents a line of plugs moving down towards the fish that will seem intimidating and likely draw a strike because the steelhead can't move to the right or left without seeing another upstart minnow undulating towards it.


Faced with that intrusion of small wiggling fish, there's a good chance a territorial steelhead is going to smack one of them. And that's when your fun begins.


That's when my fun began when I traveled west to the Skagit River to try back trolling for steelhead migrating up from the Pacific, a short while after my Salmon River trip in New York. I joined veteran guide Dan Bryson that day as mist from fresh-fallen rain hung in white swirls over the sweeping, emerald river. Pulling hard on the oars, Dan sent the four plugs on a deep wobbling dive as we pulled away from the launch site.


In a matter of minutes one of the 9-foot rods bowed deep and I snatched it from its holder. A wild 17-pound Washington State steelhead screeched away in a line-stripping run. After a raucous battle, I pumped it close and we released the silver-bright fish-one of 13 we would take back trolling on this gorgeous West Coast river in two days of nonstop fishing.


East Coast or West, back trolling for steelhead gets the job done. It's an exhilarating angling experience every fisherman should try at least once in his or her life.


Final Tip

Remember to probe prime steelhead lies slowly. You're trying to aggravate the fish into striking. A plug that moves through too quickly might be ignored while one that hangs around wobbling annoyingly is more likely to be considered an invader and attacked.